HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — The South Jersey Transportation Authority moved one step closer Friday to getting endangered birds out of the path of jets at Atlantic City International Airport.
The SJTA’s Board of Commissioners approved an amendment to a 2004 agreement with the state Pinelands Commission that would allow the airport to mow a 293-acre grassland area set aside for the birds and open a similar conservation site at a plot in the Pinelands, of which 62 acres is already cleared.
Under the agreement, the authority would make six payments of $500,000 to the Pinelands Conservation Fund for land acquisition. The agreement is still subject to Pinelands Commission approval at its meeting next Friday.
Only Commissioner James “Sonny” McCullough objected to the amendment during the meeting at the Farley Service Plaza on the Atlantic City Expressway.
“I believe this is a bad deal,” said McCullough, the former mayor of Egg Harbor Township, where the airport is located. “I think it was negotiated wrong.”
The original deal allowed the SJTA to develop parts of the airport within the Pinelands in exchange for creating a grassland habitat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division in 2009 conducted a Wildlife Hazard Assessment for the airport and recommended a reexamination of the 2004 agreement.
“The airport is losing money,” McCullough said, “and here we are paying $3 million to cut the grass.”
The SJTA-owned plot in question is populated by the endangered upland sandpiper and the threatened grasshopper sparrow.
A report by consulting firm Environmental Resource Solutions Inc. found the number of strike reports involving the birds went up after the establishment of the reserve but decreased between 2011 and 2017.
“When these things happen, they can be rare, but they can be catastrophic,” Sarah Brammell, a Federal Aviation Administration-qualified airport wildlife biologist, told the Pinelands Commission during a public hearing in March.
The agreement also would enhance a 12-acre site in the northeast quadrant of the airport dedicated to the preservation of the “frosted elfin butterfly through the planting of wild indigo.”
The SJTA will submit a detailed plan, with milestones, to the Pinelands Commission for the new Grassland Conservation and Management Area. The plan is to have the conservation site completed within three years of approval.
Friday’s vote is subject to a governor’s veto period of 15 business days.